The following appears in the June issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
He’s made a career for himself in Alaska, but for crabbing boat skipper and TV personality Keith Colburn, home will always be on the ski slopes and waters of Lake Tahoe.
But a friend and he wanted something different in their lives. Colburn discovered a love of cooking and was working his way through the kitchen and probably could have become a successful chef. Yet he was off to pursue a career as a commercial fisherman, which he continues to do as the owner and skipper of the Wizard, one of the fishing vessels featured on the Discovery Channel series Deadliest Catch.
Still, Colburn is proud of his less humble roots as a ski-loving adventure addict in the Sierra. It was a fun place to grow up with endless outdoor opportunities in his backyard.
“Growing up in Northern California in the mountains there, you know how beautiful it is. It’s hard to compare it to everything, but if you’re in Alaska, you’re seeing some incredible scenery up there,” he says. “That’s one of the greatest things about Alaska. So for me, coming from Tahoe I was already spoiled having grown up in an incredible environment and a beautiful mountainous environment with a big lake.”
The outdoor lifestyle would ultimately define who Colburn is today.
THE EXTENDED COLBURN FAMILY traces its roots to Amador County, northeast of Sacramento in the Sierra foothills. Keith Colburn recently attended a family reunion in Northern California and learned a little more about his ancestors’ backstory.
“There’s a small set of towns – Sutter Creek, Jackson, Middletown and a little town called Plymouth – along Highway 49, and that’s where my grandparents are from,” he says. “And a lot of family like cousins and second cousins that still live down there.”
But Tahoe – the family lived on the North Shore – was Keith’s childhood home. His parents had casino careers, but their son had different future plans.
“I knew at an early age that I would not be in the casino industry,” says Colburn, now 55. “And I spent more time in the game room waiting for my dad to go on break to bum a quarter off of him – or a dime back then – to play pinball. And I just didn’t want anything to do with the casinos.”
Lake Tahoe is a pretty epic place for an outdoors-loving youngster to grow up. A 3½-hour drive from San Francisco, one of the country’s largest natural freshwater lakes and North America’s largest alpine lake, Tahoe is a 365-day playground. For locals, it’s summer boating, swimming and fishing, and winter sports galore once snowstorms dust the Sierra. There is a little bit of everything at your fingertips.
“I had a habit of being on the water, no matter what it was – inner tube, a rowboat or a little sailboat or Hobie Cat, whatever we could get our hands on,” Colburn says. “We’d go water skiing or we’d just play on the water. We’d spend our summers down at or in the lake. So I’ve always been attracted to water.”
And once the big lake got too cold to enjoy, the surrounding mountains were the main attraction. Every kid who’s grown up in Tahoe City, Incline Village or South Lake Tahoe looks forward to the annual Ski Skate Week, when the local resorts offer discounted lift tickets for grade and middle school students.
That week was usually the only time of the year Colburn hit the slopes, so he was a little late to the ski bum party compared to some of his friends. (One of them, Bobby Ormsby, participated in the giant slalom in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.)
But Colburn eventually found his ski legs long before his sea legs by the time he was in high school.
“We’d go out there and ski and we didn’t have the proper clothing. By the end of the day every time we’d have to go back, you couldn’t drag us off the mountain until we were pretty much frostbit,” he says. “And once I started working in high school and could save some money and afford to buy my own equipment and pick up a season pass, by then I was playing catch-up with most of my buddies, who were super advanced and what you see now in extreme-type skiers. So for the next seven years or so I was skiing anywhere from 50 to 100 times a year.”
Colburn’s crew was fearless, heading into the backcountry to indulge in some of the most rugged country you can tackle west of the Rockies.
“There’s a handful of huts in the Tahoe Basin that you can ski into and stay in that people aren’t even aware of. A couple of them are still maintained by the Sierra Club. There’s one that I know most people don’t know about. I don’t know that it’s maintained, but it’s still there,” he says. “Those were some really good times with my buddies going to the backcountry and staying in huts, and then climbing up and powder skiing in areas basically that nobody else can get to.”
Mostly, though, Colburn spent a lot of time at various ski resorts that dot the mountains around the lake. He flashed lift tickets everywhere from Kirkwood to Heavenly to Boreal Ridge to Squaw Valley, but he had a personal affinity for Alpine Meadows, just west of Tahoe City.
The irony of his story is this: Considering what he’s doing now on fishing vessels, Colburn wasn’t the biggest fisherman despite the accessible opportunities in and around Lake Tahoe. Sure, he’d reel in some of the big lake’s resident rainbows or Mackinaw, but it was hardly an obsession.
“Back then in terms of fishing, I didn’t really have the patience to sit there and stare at a line and not catch stuff.”
But it wouldn’t be long before patience ran thin and the idea of fishing for a living was a real possibility.
COLBURN AND HIS BEST friend Kurt Frankenberg fled their beloved ski slopes and watersports paradise in their early 20s – a little restless, a little impatient and maybe even a little dumb.
At that time, he spent most of his days doing two things: skiing and cooking. He worked at a French and seafood restaurant named Captain Jon’s in Tahoe Vista and made his way through the ranks of the kitchen, from scrubbing dirty dishes to an assistant’s chef position.
The money was OK, and the camaraderie between Colburn and the rest of the staff meant fun times on their one day off a week. And the skiing, of course, in one of the West’s best locations for that sport, was fantastic. But it wasn’t enough to keep him there.
“The lifestyle was pretty demanding. I would spend eight to 10 hours a day in the kitchen and four or five hours in the morning skiing and not getting a whole lot of sleep,” he says.
But a turning point happened a few years earlier, when a restaurant coworker named Santo had had a proposition. He needed to get a Hans Christian sailboat moored in Petaluma down the coast to San Diego and wanted a passenger to go along.
Why not? The fearless 18-year-old was up for any adventure. Colburn was hardly a sailor, and by the time they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco Bay and hit the open water of the Pacific, he wasn’t sure if Santo knew what he was doing either.
“It went from flat water to 10-foot seas. That’s when I got my first instance with seasickness. We’re on a 36-foot boat with 25-foot seas sailing down the coast. It was a pretty scary situation,” Colburn says. “But at 18 years old when the captain is sort of a big bulletproof guy – I didn’t know what kind of mariner Santo was, I didn’t know anything about sailing, but he seemed calm enough and faithful enough that I never really became afraid when I was out there. I was crazy.”
The weather was violent enough that they had to hand-steer rather than use the autopilot. They were essentially surfing downwind with 20- to 25-foot waves crashing over the deck.
“Every two minutes I’m waist- or chest-deep in water, trapped to the helm, trying to follow a little red globe as a compass and keeping the boat on course,” Colburn says. “It was nuts, but I fell in love. And a few years later, I was getting a little burned out on cooking.”
Cue Colburn convincing his BFF Frankenberg to find their sea legs on a fishing vessel far from home, on far more stormy seas.
“I had an older friend who a couple years earlier had gone to Alaska and had come home with a pocket full of money and he’d said there were lots of opportunities for young guys who wanted to try and fish,” he says. “And so I made the decision to, instead of committing myself to wanting to be a chef, I would be willing to try something different. And so, kind of on a whim, we decided to go to Alaska.”
What could possibly go wrong?
LONG BEFORE THE INTERNET was a useful tool, Colburn’s Alaska research was done from a landline. He called the chambers of commerce at various port towns. He and Frankenberg concluded that remote Kodiak Island had enough fishing seasons to give them a decent chance to find work.
In their possession the guys had literally $50 and a tent to sleep in. Never mind a return ticket to the Lower 48.
“We were completely committed,” Colburn says.
And they questioned that commitment immediately. Colburn remembered the exact date: March 7.
“We get off the plane, and back then in 1985, the airport at Kodiak was like two Quonset huts put together. But they had this big statue when you go through the terminal and walk out of the other side of this big Kodiak brown bear that was kind of standing up,” he says. “It’s your introduction to Kodiak. And we just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh man; we’re screwed.’”
It wasn’t the only time Colburn and Frankenberg shared a blank stare and an uh-oh moment.
With a dusting of snow coming down, they hitchhiked from the airport to get down to the harbor. Upon entering the harbormaster’s office, they asked to leave their packs with him and look around for a while. When the harbormaster inquired about their presence on that blustery late-winter day, the guys said they were looking for jobs.
Here’s how the exchange went:
“What kind of work you looking for?”
“Well, we want to fish.”
“Well, I’ve got some bad news for you guys.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“You guys are about a month early. The herring fleet isn’t even going to start gearing up for about three weeks. Crab (season) is just winding down and those guys are still out there fishing and they’re nowhere near here. And the rest of the fleet is going to be tied up for at least another month.”
It was Colburn’s no room-at-the-inn introduction to Alaska.
“And now, for the second time, we look at each other and say, ‘No, we’re not screwed. We’re totally screwed.’ So there was a lot of, ‘What the hell did we get ourselves into?’”
A few days later, some hope arrived in the form of the F/V Alaska Trader, a 135-foot crabber/tender that had been mothballed around Bristol Bay. It pulled into Kodiak looking haggard and beaten up, but had an owner who aspired to get it back out on the water again to fish. Enter an opportunity for two eager, if not desperate, greenhorns looking for any opportunity they could find.
It was the first step in a new job as a fisherman for Colburn.
“And what they needed was two really stupid kids to do the worst jobs you can ever imagine on the planet. It was for room and board,” he says. “There was no pay. But you know what? Those staterooms on the Alaska Trader were a helluva lot nicer than the tent we were staying in.”
WHEN HE LEFT HIS skis for the sea in the 1980s, aspiring chef Keith Colburn was pulling in about $24,000 a year in the kitchen of that Tahoe City restaurant. That first year in Kodiak, when he and Frankenberg were doing the grunt work to restore the Alaska Trader and eventually fish on the vessel, they didn’t gross half that.
But he says that’s a story no different than the other dreamers who flock to Alaska to hitch a ride on a boat and try to make a life out of it.
“So the question wasn’t, ‘Why did you go to Alaska?’ The question was, ‘Why did you go back?’” Colburn says.
“But the very first time we set sail out of Kodiak going to Togiak for the herring in early April, we were on watch. It was a beautiful night and we’re going through the islands, and I’m over on the port side of the wheelhouse and the captain comes over and goes, ‘Yeah; you’re hooked.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’ve got the look.’ I was literally hooked immediately and just fell in love with being on the water.”
By 1988, he became a full-time deckhand on the Wizard, and within a few years he elevated himself from working down below in the engine room to being on deck as a deck boss, to then a mate and a relief captain. Finally, in 2005 he purchased the boat from one of his mentors, John Jorgensen.
“All of a sudden John handed me the keys and said, ‘You know what? You’re the captain now.’ And it’s gone from there.”
He’s made not just a career out of crab fishing the dangerous, and yes, deadly waters they work on – in this season’s premiere, all of the vessels paid tribute to the crew of the F/V Destination, lost in 2017 when the boat sank in the Bering Sea. But there’s also the fame that’s come with being a fellow skipper on Discovery’s most successful series.
That said, Colburn also is grateful that Deadliest Catch has given his industry a collective face. Yes, viewers only see what the cameras shoot and producers decide to air. But as this unlikely megahit began its 14th season last month, it’s important to note the impact the show’s had on all of those who aren’t household names in the commercial fishing cosmos.
Colburn has testified in Congress multiple times, making pleas when pending government shutdowns have threatened to delay the opening of king crab season in Alaskan waters.
“It wasn’t like they slammed the door in our face in Washington D.C., but we were the little guys and kind of an afterthought. But all of a sudden, along comes TV and the doors are opening wider and wider all the time,” Colburn says. “It’s helped not only myself but all fisheries, and I think the awareness about the risk of fishing, the rewards of fishing and the value of the product that we bring in, the biggest thing is that it’s helped fishermen all around the United States. You watch Deadliest Catch and you see guys risking their lives to catch crab; you get a better understanding of why it’s expensive. (Crab are) incredibly dangerous to catch.”
“Going back to the first industries that were ever in America – fishing and whaling – long before we became a country and started farming in America, there were fishermen. So for us keeping that way of life alive throughout the United States, I think that would be the biggest reward that I can say has come from the show.”
His celebrity status offers plenty of perks – it’s true: crab captains can be TV stars. Spy on Colburn’s social media pages and you’ll find him visiting Venice and attending sporting events like thoroughbred races, Seattle Seahawks games – sharing snaps of he and quarterback Russell Wilson, though Colburn admits his true loyalties are to the San Francisco 49ers – and college basketball’s NCAA Tournament.
Tahoe will always be home, and even now in middle age, Colburn returns to the mountains to ski with friends and family. But the choice to give Alaska a go and sticking with it despite his inauspicious introduction to the state known as the Last Frontier.
“Overall, it’s been a wonderful, great ride. I’ve experienced new things; I’ve met some amazing people,” he says. “I’ve been able to do things I would have never done (and) the doors that have been opened from the exposure of being on TV.” CS
Editor’s note: New episodes of Deadliest Catch can be seen on Tuesday nights on the Discovery Channel at 10 Pacific (check your local listings). Follow Capt. Keith Colburn on Twitter (@crabwizard) and Instagram (@captainkeithcolburn) and like at facebook.com/